Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Catching up on the future

Swallows’ return to Capistrano seems like an iffy thing compared with the outpouring of restaurant predictions at year’s end. The 2011 crop of prognostications is looking like a bumper yield, mounting faster than the national debt after an unusually early start. If you were too busy putting away the summer patio furniture to notice, here’s what the soothsayers have foreseen thus far for the business.

A bad, bad year for independents. New York restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman, a recovering editor, has predicted that almost 10,000 non-chain places will fire down their ovens for good next year. The problem, he asserts, is the mom-and-pop’s inability to borrow what they need to stay in business until sales rebound.

Con-fusion returns. Whiteman is one of the sages who expect more mixing of ethnic specialties next year, a reversal of the march toward the purity, if not authenticity, that was heralded in prior times. Like 2010.

Top imports? As to what ethnics might wax in popularity, just throw a dart at a globe. There are several predictions of Korean food going mainstream, but that’s hardly a new notion. Ditto with the prognostications that Thai will be the new Japanese. Peru is getting some lip service, too, as is Nordic fare. Our bet: simple Italian. Spaghetti and meatballs, differentiated from the past by quality, will be the dish of the year.

Can you sing oom-pa-pa? Dust off the lederhosen for your research dine-arounds, because there’s a consensus that beer gardens are the Concept of the Moment.

Comfort food will get a creative shot. There’s agreement among the cognoscenti that customers will still crave the safety of old favorites, but maybe with a dash of adventure to break the monotony. Southern fried chicken, for instance, might be passed over for Korean fried chicken (fried in olive oil rather than other shortenings). Technomic terms the phenomenon “familiar with a twist,” and suggests that it’ll go beyond a sharp cheddar (whoa!) in the mac and cheese.

Full disclosure. There seems to be no misreading the tea leaves on this one: Consumers will be demanding—and getting—more info about what they’re eating. Smart restaurateurs will decide they should be the source. Others will let their patrons fill the void via social media and citizen-reviewer services like Yelp. We’re not just talking quantitative assessments in 140 characters, but a mini-snapshot of what’s in the meal.

We’ll be adding more predictions, here and via, as they spew from the crystal ball.

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